The final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule details how producers and handlers who want to be certified as organic must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well being, including how much space animals need, what types of medical procedures are allowed and when, and how to most humanely transport and slaughter animals.
Many stakeholders, including the Organic Trade Association and the Animal Welfare Institute, laud the final rule as a way to level the playing field among organic handlers by reducing inconsistencies in how the previous guidelines were interpreted and bringing the standards more in line with consumer expectations for organic products, as well as improving the lives and health of farm animals.
But others say the rule goes too far.
Among those who oppose the changes is the National Pork Producers Council, which promises in a statement to “work with the Trump administration and Congress to repeal yet another ‘midnight’ regulation.”
In a written statement, OTA conveys that the rule, while finalized late in the current administration is far from a last-minute or carelessly crafted regulation.
“This regulation reflects over a decade of public input through the organic industry’s transparent rule-making process, and OTA applauds USDA for listening to these perspectives and crafting regulations,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA, said in a statement.
The trade association also comes across as unfazed by the threat of repeal, noting that it “looks forward to working with USDA and the organic industry during the implementation phase of this major advancement of the organic label.”
The role of consumer perception in rule-making
Timing of the finalization aside, grounding the final rule partly in the public’s perception of what organic should mean could leave it open for repeal, based on the NPPC’s arguments.
NPPC President John Weber argues in a written statement that the final rule oversteps the scope of the organic food production law and cows to public perception of how animals should be treated under the organic seal without scientific justification.
“This is precisely the type of executive branch overreach that Congress will reign in through regulatory reform,” Weber said.
For example, he explained, “animal production practices have nothing to do with the concept of ‘organic,’” which Weber says is limited to feeding and medication practices.
He adds that including animal welfare requirements in the organic food production law “is no different than requiring all farmers wear bib overalls or paint their barns red in deference to public sentiment.”
OTA sharply disagrees, explaining in a statement that “animal welfare, which includes healthy living conditions and the best animal husbandry practices, has always been a high priority of organic producers, and consumers have come to rely on organic livestock and poultry being raised according to the highest standards.”
These standards include “a clean, transparent and environmentally-friendly production system, and that is, and always has been, the model for organic,” the association explained.
With this in mind, it goes on to argue that the “regulation strikes the proper balance between consumer expectations with the realities of commercial animal product, both small and large.”
For example, it notes that USDA adjusted the final rule to reflect requests by some producers, such as one by broiler chicken operators for additional time to build more houses to maintain current production levels while still meeting new indoor stocking density requirements.
The final rule also removed the “one cow, one stall” and “full recumbence” requirements for indoor space for cattle based on a recognition that operators have a wide range in types and styles of operations, OTA noted.
Safety of standards debated
NPPC is not convinced and argues that by bowing to consumer perceptions of how animals should be treated, some of the standards in the final rule could jeopardize animal and public health.
“The provision on outdoor access, for example, is in conflict with best management practices to prevent swine diseases that pose a threat to animal and human health,” it argues.
OTA, however, notes the final rule removes a requirement for contact with soil for mammalian livestock based on health concerns for swine and soil and water quality concerns for cattle.
The association also notes USDA removed a requirement that doors in buildings housing poultry must allow all birds to exit within one hour, recognizing that such a requirement not only would be difficult to verify but could allow rodents to enter, posing a food safety risk.